Braille Monitor February 1986
by Eileen O'Brien
My hand was shaking as I put down the receiver of the phone on September 2 5, 1985. I was really shocked that discrimination could actually be happening to me, but I was truly not surprised. I had told my family and my lawyer that it might happen, but I really had not expected it. The phone call was from my lawyer, whom I had known since high school, with regard to my petition for guardianship of my mother who had had a massive stroke on July 30th. Since July 30th I had been handling her affairs and her bills. I saw no reason to discontinue, and neither did my sisters, who both are employed and live out of state. Every time that I mentioned the possibility of discrimination, my family pooh-poohed the idea. After all, they knew me. I am a competent blind person and had been a blind teacher until I decided to work full time for our Diabetic Division. The lawyer had said that she had talked to the judge in our local county courthouse in Wheaton, Illinois, and that the judge was disinclined to grant me guardianship of my mother's affairs because I am blind. He suggested that the lawyer become my coguardian and that I take all the bills to her office every two weeks. Besides the inconvenience (there is no public transportation in the western suburbs of Chicago where I live), we were trying desperately to find the money to pay for my mother's care. To have a co-guardian seemed to me to be a perfectly ludicrous idea, not only on the basis that I am a competent blind person but on the basis of the expense. I had told her I would not accept a co-guardian and put down the phone.
I knew where to call for help. I dialed our National Office, intending to speak with Dr. Jernigan. I had forgotten momentarily that Marc Maurer was at the National Office and was releived to hear Marc's voice on the phone. Immediately after telling Marc the facts of the case I calmed down. The last thing he said to me was, "Eileen, you be sure the judge knows and your lawyer knows that if he denies your petition for guardianship on the basis of blindness, that there will be an appeal."
Suppose I had not been a Federationist. Where would I have been then? Where would my family have been? But I am a Federationist, and I knew that all of you were behind me. From that moment I had enough confidence to go into court. There is a sidelight, too. The bondsman had indicated to the lawyer that she would refuse to grant me a bond, also on the basis of blindness. After the phone call I began gathering my resources. On Marc's advice I called some of you that I had worked with in various capacities in the NFB over the past several years and to call various other competent people to affirm my ability in case I needed them. One of the people I called was my state senator. I knew her personally, having met her through the NFB of Illinois at our legislative breakfasts in Springfield and through calling her on the phone to educate her about bills we wished to have passed. I had given her our point of view on legislative facts and whether she agreed with me or not, she always listened and spoke to me directly. I was never shunted off to one of her aides. I called her to ask if I could have an affidavit from her, and she said that she would call the judge because he was. a personal friend of long standing in the Republican Party of Dupage County, Illinois. I asked her not to call him because I did not want a political favor since the issue is too far-reaching. As Marc said, this is the reverse of discrimination cases where the child has been taken from the blind parent. In fact, he indicated that it would be a national precedent-setting case, which might indeed affect many of you with elderly parents.
My senator called me back the next morning to say that she had called the judge, feeling that she owed it to her friend to tell him about me, that I had been on several statewide task forces as the NFBI representative, that I had come to Springfield more than once to lobby, and that no one could put anything over on me. The judge's initial uneducated objection had been to deny the petition because he thought that my reader would slip something in and that I might sign away my mother's assets. After all, the judge is part of the general public, and we know that people are not educated about the capabilities of the blind. So the senator said, "I told him that you were competent and that there is no reason he should deny the petition for guardianship."
A week later when our court date came up, there were a number of people present--not only my lawyer, who was a little nonplussed at the idea that the case might expand to the national level, but my aunt, my sister, an affidavit or two, and one of my reader friends. We all marched up to the judge with an air of determination. He didn't so much as look up. He then granted the petition and waived the bond. The judge, in waiving the bond, saved us several hundred dollars, and the bond did not become an issue. The whole procedure took ten minutes. I am persuaded that it is because of my own confidence in the NFB (which is all of us) and the fact that I had participated in lobbying, phone calls, and letters to my legislators.
My mother died two days later. As Dr. Jernigan reminded us last July in his banquet address, we are simply no longer willing to be submissive. We will do what we have to do, and together we will never go back. Simply put, that is why I am glad I am a Federationist.